Ed Driscoll

Technology And Pop Culture

Roger L. Simon looks at two sad Hollywood events, the death of actress Barbara Bel Geddes, and the end of hand-drawn animation at Disney:

DisneyToon Studios Australia, its last bastion, will be shutting down next year. For most of us, it’s not to difficult to see the difference between digital work, terrific as it can be in films like The Incredibles, and the hand-drawn leaves of Bambi. This is one of the reasons some of us are so in awe of artists like Miyakzaki who are carrying on this tradition. On my most recent trip to Japan, I accidentally visited a small museum where his individual animation drawings for Spirited Away were displayed in giant stacks. It’s hard to conceive one human being could accomplish so much (maybe his day lasts sixty hours).

Why is this related to Bel Geddes? Of course there are many reasons for the cinema’s decline, but sometimes I worry that, for all its vaunted ease of use and accessibility, the digital revolution isn’t a part of the increasing disappearance of film as an art or even as a significant cultural institution. Others vastly more accomplished evidently have the same fear. John Canemaker concluded his WSJ article this way:

As Disney’s great admirer Steven Spielberg recently said, “If storytelling becomes a byproduct of the digital revolution, then the medium itself is corrupted.”

There’s a curious give and take these days between high-tech and pop culture. I can speak best about it in terms of music, where I’ve seen the tools of major recording studios filter down into the hands of anybody who can afford it, including such technology as digital recording, musical loops, pitch correction, software-based synthesizers, and remarkably powerful digital effects.

No doubt, there’s some remarkable music being made by everyday folks, and I’ve certainly spent an enjoyable four years or so learning how to use PC-based technology to record my own material. Similarly, just as 35 years ago, computers were once solely the province of big business, today, the newspaper industry has given up an enormous amount of ground to empowered amateurs armed with little more than a PC, a broadband connection and a Weblog.

But you would think that big media would benefit the most from this technology, whether it’s Hollywood, the recording industry or what we frequently abbreviate as “the MSM”. And yet, is there anybody would argue that today’s movies, as a whole, are better than Hollywood’s product of 25, 35, or especially 50 or 60 years ago? Is there anybody who would turn on a rock & roll or pop station and describe its current offerings as better than the days of the British Invasion and Motown, both of whose offerings were recorded on equipment that was laughably crude compared to the way that a modern recording studio is kitted out?

Technology has done wonders to empower individuals. But it’s very strange how it’s done little to better the product created by commercial industries that were once the best at what they did.

The quote that Roger includes by Steven Spielberg is key, I think, to what has happened to both Hollywood and the music industry:

“If storytelling becomes a byproduct of the digital revolution, then the medium itself is corrupted.”

If we use storytelling as shorthand for the craft of entertaining in general, then it’s safe to say that in both music and film, that’s already happened to a great extent. The music industry’s desire to find the latest sex bomb diva or Jagger-wannabe has result in a dearth of entertainers hired far more for their looks than for their talent. Technology wasn’t quite there 15 years ago, so when Frank Farian, the German-based record producer hired Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan to be the frontmen for Milli Vanilli, he had to rely on much more polished but far less photogenic performers to sing on his record. Today, he would have simply hired Rob and Fab, and then run their vocals through a battery of effects to correct their pitch, reshape their timbre, and perfect their phrasing.

My wife frequently bemoans the thin, breathy vocals to today’s pop divas, but it’s as much more of a visual trend than it is a stylistic one, as the video, the steamy pin-up poster, and hot chatroom-traded jpegs of this week’s diva du jour are far more important to the boys in the PR department, than any sort of singing or musical talent appears to be. (I predicted the logical outcome of where all of this is going in a Tech Central Station piece last year.)

A similar trend is happening in Hollywood, as big budget film after big budget film junks writing and cogent storytelling for zillion dollar effects budgets, in the hopes of blowing the audience out of its seats, rather than telling them a story.

Well you know what? I’ve been blown out of my seat enough times. I don’t mind movies as roller-coaster rides, when the plot flows logically into a climactic orgy of bullets and shards of plate glass (or lasers and exploding spaceships and planets), but too often, modern films are written solely to kill time in-between the two or three hellzapoppin’ special effects sequences.

Back in 2001, John Podhoretz wrote a nifty history of Hollywood and its storytelling techniques that ultimately noted, just before its conclusion:

Movies today are awful because Hollywood no longer knows what a good plot is, what an interesting character is, or what genuine conviction is when it comes to telling a story.

But hey, how ’bout those bitchin’ lightsaber battles and pod races!